"A State of Texas" / The Old 97s
TEXAS MUSIC WEEK
I swear, this has nothing to do with the fact that the Texas Rangers knocked my Yankees out of the playoffs this week. (Frankly, the Rangers deserve to be in the World Series a hell of a lot more than the Yankees do.) It was more on account of my buddies John and Tim over on the Kinks Fan Club board, who lately have been tirelessly promoting the musical heritage of the Lone Star State. Even during last week's orgy of British rockers, I kept discovering new veins of Tex-arcana to explore -- it seemed high time to roll out this project.
At the risk of being random, I thought I'd start out with one of the younger bands (despite their geezer-ish name), The Old 97s. I've been nuts about these alt-county/indie darlings ever since I discovered them about a year ago. Their new album The Grand Theatre Volume One just came out a couple weeks ago, and I finally got my copy on Friday. (Boo to the New West publicity department, though, who routinely blew off my request for a review copy -- which is why you won't be seeing a review of this marvelous LP from me on blogcritics.org.) By the way, that "Volume One" is for real -- there's supposed to be a second Grand Theatre album coming out in January, with a whole other set of tracks. Hoping it'll be anywhere near as good as this one, I'm pre-ordering it NOW.
To fill in a little history: The Old 97s are from the Dallas area (Texas is so big, always best to specify the locality) and started playing together in 1993. Along the way they've released maybe a dozen albums; lead singer Rhett Miller (originally from Austin) has also released a handful of solo albums. Under the Old 97s name, though, it's been the same four guys the whole time -- Miller, guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hamilton, and drummer Philip Peeples -- and, while Miller may do the lion's share of the songwriting, they share songwriting credits on most tracks. That may explain why the band hasn't foundered on the shoals of Miller's obvious star quality.
"A State of Texas" comes about halfway through the album, and it's a perfect mid-tracklist pick-me-up. I love its boisterous energy -- reminds me that these guys got their start as a Dallas bar band, and they still know how to kick it out. The raison d'etre of this number is blissfully simple: It's Texas patriotism all the way, name-checking local landmarks and exclaiming over and over again how much they love Texas. Considering how much time they spend on the road, or hobnobbing with other name musicians in New York and Los Angeles, it's nice to see them reaffirming their Texas roots. (Interesting to note that the record was largely recorded in Austin, at the Texas Treefort, with Jim Vollentine producing.)
I've love Bethea's fasten-your-seatbelts guitar work on this track -- is it something in the Texas water that breeds superspeed guitarists? -- backed up with Peeples' whizbang drumming. Miller's anxious-earnest tenor seems to race to keep up, sneaking gasps of breath amidst a torrent of lyrics. He reels images past us -- country dawns, night skies over the plains, crowded honkytonks, spooling highways -- like a cardsharp shuffling his deck, or maybe a caffeine-revved trucker speeding down empty stretches of West Texas interstate. It's just a delirious joyride of a song.
I'd better confess right now that I've never been to Texas, unless you count changing planes at the Dallas airport (I don't). But I've been hankering for a while to get down there; I'm not buying a Stetson or cowboy boots or anything, but I could definitely do some barbecue. Oh, yes, Texas Week -- that should cure the lonesomes those British rockers left me with.